On Nov. 4, California voters approved Proposition 47, which reduces certain non-serious and non-violent property and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. The measure also allows certain offenders who have been previously convicted of such crimes to apply for reduced sentences.
The anticipated long-term result would lessen prison overcrowding. Proponents argued that, if enacted, the population of inmates in the state prison system and county jails would be reduced; thus saving money and ensuring capacity for violent and serious offenders.
Already, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has built these changes into its assumption for future budgets and state spending. In its latest fiscal report, the LAO stated, “These changes will reduce state prison population and associated costs by (1) making fewer offenders eligible for prison and (2) releasing certain offenders currently in prison as a result of being re-sentenced. Accordingly, our estimates above assume that Proposition 47 will reduce the prison population by several thousand inmates — resulting in savings of more than a couple hundred million dollars annually beginning in 2015-16.”
While the state budget may benefit from implementing Prop 47, career criminal justice officials are less sanguine of its general long-term effects and specifically on local government finances.
Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach, who opposed Prop 47, said, “It will exacerbate an already bad situation because of the jail overcrowding which already exists in Riverside County.”
Individuals, who would have been convicted of felonies, will receive misdemeanor sentences, which can shift them from state prisons to county jails, although for shorter time periods. More than 500 prison inmates are eligible to have convictions reduced to misdemeanors and then moved to county jail.
In Zellerbach’s 37 years as part of the criminal justice system, his experience is that most offenders commit multiple crimes and “drug and theft offenders are repeat offenders and will re-cycle through the system.”
Riverside County started implementing Prop 47 the day after the election, Zellerbach stated. Already, offenders no longer being charged as felonies are refusing to accept the counseling and other help programs that previously would have been required.
“There is no room for monitoring and … criminals will be released within days,“ Zellerbach stated.
Within the criminal justice system, the probation departments are responsible for helping prisoners and offenders try to return to normality. The director of Riverside County’s Probation Department, Mark Hake, said he and his staff have been formulating plans for Prop 47’s implementation.
Currently, his 19 field offices and 300 probation officers have more than 16,000 adult felons to supervisor and monitor in Riverside County. About 3,600 adult offenders may be eligible for reduced sentences, according to Hake, and nearly 500 have been assessed as high-risk offenders.
Somewhat of an echo of Zellerbach, Hake said, “Just because a felony is now a misdemeanor, it doesn’t’ change who the offender is.” He estimated that of the 3,600 eligible for case review, they have had 8,700 separate arrests.
Probation will continue to assess the risk of each to repeat. Hake’s strategy is to “still supervise the high-risk offenders. They will need direction, intervention services, and held accountable and compliant with court.”
Historically, there was little to minimal supervision of misdemeanants. But Hake’s staff is developing a profile to identify the future high-risk, but misdemeanor, offenders. Eventually this will lead to discussions with the courts, but no clear policies have been formulated.
“It’s an abysmal future realistically,” he opined. “I feel ham-strung. There’s no discretion to operate within this law.”
“This is a grave concern to district attorneys throughout California,” Zellerbach declared.